Ukrainian soldiers sing inside the Mariupol steelworks 1:01
After nearly three months of heavy bombardment, thousands of reported deaths and countless stories of horror and famine, the battle for the city of Mariupol draws to a close.
Ukraine's military announced late on Monday that its forces had completed their "combat mission" at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, which for weeks was the last major holdout in a city otherwise occupied by the Russian troops.
Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated from the facility and efforts were being made to evacuate those still inside.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in late February.
It was there that Russia carried out deadly attacks on a mother and child hospital and the shelling of a theater where hundreds of civilians had taken refuge from the violence.
The symbolic defense of Mariupol comes to an end: why is it a key battle in the war in Ukraine?
It is now feared that evidence of further atrocities may be lost forever.
Before the Kremlin took control of Mariupol, the city council accused Russian forces of trying to erase evidence, using mobile crematoria to dispose of bodies and identifying witnesses to any "atrocity" through "filtering centers."
CNN was unable to verify this claim.
"The killers are covering their tracks," the council argued.
The Kremlin has denied many of these claims, including the use of so-called "filtration centers" to cover up misdeeds and the targeting of civilians in Mariupol.
A symbol of resistance
Mariupol became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance during weeks of relentless Russian attacks.
Although most of the city had already fallen, its defenders held out in Azovstal, where as many as 1,000 civilians took refuge at one point.
Ukrainian officials described a bleak situation inside the steel plant, as food and water supplies dwindled and hundreds of injured were stranded without adequate medical care.
This is what the wounded soldiers look like at the Azovstal plant 1:15
A drone image released by the Mariupol City Council on Monday, April 18, shows a large plume of smoke rising from the Azovstal steel plant.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier said "tens of thousands" have been killed in Mariupol, while the regional military governor last month put the death toll as high as 22,000, though it is difficult to verify clouded by war .
The mayor of Mariupol estimates that 90% of the city's infrastructure has been damaged, 40% of it irreparable.
Images of the destruction of Mariupol have become symbols of the Kremlin's indiscriminate use of weapons in Ukraine, drawing strong visual parallels to the razing of cities like Aleppo in Syria or the Chechen capital of Grozny.
Russian forces are seen on the streets of Mariupol on April 15, 2022.
Controlling Mariupol is key to Russian efforts to take control of the broader Donbas region, beyond the separatist-held territories, according to Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Center for a New American Security, based in Russia. Washington.
"It is unrealistic to declare control of Donbas without actual control of its main cities," he told CNN in an email last month.
Kofman said the fall of Mariupol should free up manpower and logistics for the Kremlin's campaign in the rest of Donbas.
But keeping the city under Moscow's control will also require significant resources.
Russia is likely to need all the troops it can muster for its offensive in eastern Ukraine, where it has refocused its military efforts after withdrawing from other parts of the country.
Artillery fire and airstrikes continue along the front lines in Luhansk and Donetsk, but the Ukrainian military says it is repelling Russian attempts to gain territory.
A local resident walks along a street next to burned buses in Mariupol on April 19, 2022.
Analysts say Russian forces simply tried to bulldoze Mariupol to make it easier to control, especially considering the story of the man put in charge of Russia's war effort, General Alexander Dvornikov.
Russian General Alexander Zhuravlyov, who oversaw the worst atrocities in Syria, led cluster munition rocket attacks on civilians in Ukraine
Dvornikov led a division in the Kremlin's pacification campaign in Chechnya from 2000 to 2003 and led Russian forces in Syria from 2015 to 2016. In both cases, the Russian military left destruction in its wake, shelling civilian areas regardless of casualties. .
"He basically annihilated and wiped out Aleppo, the second largest Syrian city. And his strategy was to just bomb everything that was alive, target civilian infrastructure, hospitals and schools, and then basically take over what was left," he said. Orysia Lutsevych, a researcher at the British think tank Chatham House.
"It is a similar strategy to what we are already seeing in Mariupol," he said last month, when the fighting was still ongoing.
Ukrainian military intelligence has already accused Dvornikov of supervising war crimes committed against the civilian population in Mariupol during the siege.
a complete count
Of the 450,000 people who lived in the city before the war, a third had already left by mid-April, according to Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko.
Only 100,000 residents remain, and those who have fled carry with them the horror stories of war.
Some of the residents who made it out of the city have said they were ordered by Russian forces to evacuate to Russia through so-called "filtration centers," a practice that raised painful memories of Joseph Joseph's forcible relocation of millions of people. Stalin in remote parts of the Soviet Union.
Russian forces have also apparently banned citizens from leaving at times.
A view shows the graves of civilians who lost their lives during the Ukraine-Russia conflict on the side of the road in Mariupol on April 18, 2022.
Many said they holed up in basements for days to hide from relentless artillery fire.
One resident previously told CNN he was in line waiting for drinking water when an explosion killed three people in front of him, including one who was decapitated.
The Kremlin has denied many of these claims, including the use of filter centers to cover up wrongdoing and attacks on civilians in Mariupol.
But Russian forces are already moving quickly to clean up some of the areas hardest hit by their offensive, according to Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol.
"Surprisingly, the debris clearance plan coincides with the places of greatest destruction ... the drama theater, Myru avenue, and now suddenly it is the hospital," Andriushchenko said, referring to hospital number three, which was heavily bombed in March.
A video from the aftermath of the bombing showed heavily pregnant women being carried from the hospital;
at least one subsequently died.
CNN investigation into Mariupol bombing debunks Russian allegation 3:40
A Telegram channel that appears to be linked to the new Russian-backed administration in the city has announced that temporary employment is offered "picking up the dead" as well as in city improvements.
It is probably impossible to make a full account of the devastation that has occurred there, as the city is under full Russian control.
The extent of the alleged war crimes committed in the liberated cities of northern Ukraine, such as Bucha and Borodianka, only became apparent after Russian forces fled.
The inhabitants of Mariupol could have suffered the same kind of abuse.
If the city remains under Moscow's control, an actual record of what happened there may be lost to history.
-- CNN's Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.
-- CNN's Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine Mariupol